With Under-20 World Cup back, Fire's Serbian coaching trio relive historic title

With Under-20 World Cup back, Fire's Serbian coaching trio relive historic title

In the early hours of the American morning on Thursday, the United States Under-20 men’s national team beat New Zealand 6-0 in South Korea to advance to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup.

It is the second straight U-20 World Cup in which the U.S. has made it to the quarterfinals. The last time the Americans were knocked out in penalty kicks by Veljko Paunovic’s Serbia.

Paunovic and Serbia went on to win that tournament. Serbia’s historic victory, the first for Serbia in any World Cup at any age level, was the big boost to Paunovic’s coaching resume that led the Chicago Fire to hire him five months later.

“Of course it gave me I think recognition,” Paunovic said after Fire training on Thursday. “Winning the World Cup is always one of the greatest achievements so it gives you also the confidence that what you are doing is the right way to do (things), even (when) you always believe in your work. The title like that gives you the extra motivation and actually shapes and opens the path for you to keep working and improving on yourself and gives you more opportunities for a job obviously.”

Two of Paunovic’s countrymen from the coaching staff of that victorious Serbian team followed him to the Fire. Marko Mitrovic is one of the Fire’s assistant coaches and Aleksandar Saric coaches the goalkeepers. For everyone involved in that Serbian team, it was a life-changing event.

Serbia has had success in other sports. Tennis star Novak Djokovic has won 12 Grand Slam titles. Serbia has Olympic gold medals in men’s volleyball (2000), men’s water polo (2016) and the men’s basketball team won a pair of FIBA World Cups (1998 and 2002).

In soccer though, Serbia had never won a World Cup at any age level before. As a combined Yugoslavia, the country won the 1987 U-20 World Cup, but independent Serbia hadn’t found success on its own.

“That’s probably the biggest achievement in history of Serbian soccer,” Mitrovic said. “We are always the generation. Like the Cubs here with people waiting 100 years for the Cubs to win the World Series. That’s something that people in Serbia dreamed that Serbia would become the World Cup champion. We had more 100,000 people waiting in the streets for us after that. (It) is probably everyday that I think about that. That’s something that stays behind us through all our lives.”

With a population of just over 7 million, Serbia has fewer people than the Chicagoland area.

“It’s difficult to win MLS here with one city,” Saric said. “Imagine to win the world with the population the size of Chicago winning the world championship, which really is a great achievement.”

The coaches are able to keep in touch with the players from the championship team through a WhatsApp group. They communicate regularly.

“They are now all around the world, but we are still in touch,” Saric said. “We celebrate the date also when we win that.”

With a new set of players and the coaching trio now with the Fire, Serbia didn’t make it to the final round of European qualifying tournament. With Serbia out, all three took note of the success of the U.S. team.

“They are doing a great job,” Mitrovic said of the U.S. “We played against them (two years ago) and they are there again now, which I think that (coach) Tab Ramos is doing great things with that national team. Doing it twice in a row, quarterfinals, it’s a big achievement.”

Saric fondly recalled the penalty shootout in the quarterfinal between the U.S. and Serbia. Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajković, who was named goalkeeper of the tournament, and American goalkeeper Zack Steffen, now the starter for the Columbus Crew, both made three saves in the first eight rounds before Serbia finally won in the ninth round.

“I said because I respect what I saw in Steffen’s game before we play America, I said who wins this game, he will be probably the best goalkeeper of the tournament,” Saric said. “I said that for our newspapers. It was an amazing (shootout). We lead three times. Rajkovic saved three penalties and Steffen always when we need to score, he saved... Then it happened Rajkovic saved one extra penalty and our captain scored.”

The U.S. plays its quarterfinal against Venezuela on Sunday. Paunovic, Mitrovic and Saric have their eyes on this year’s tournament, but from a different vantage point. They are looking for potential players to bring to the Fire, although memories of two years ago are still strong.

“It’s one of the competitions that for me has a very personal and deep root inside of my feelings because of what we achieved for my country, but also it’s the great opportunity to see great young players performing and competing for the World Cup,” Paunovic said.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.